With national signing day arriving for high school basketball recruits, Andrew Wiggins is being highlighted as this year’s top prospect. Wiggins, however, can’t even approach the publicity that was lavished on some of the high school stars of seasons past.
Greg Oden came out of Lawrence North High getting treated like the second coming of Bill Russell. The two-time National High School Player of the Year became the cornerstone of Thad Matta’s vaunted “Thad Five” recruiting class at Ohio State.
Read on for more on Oden and the rest of the 20 players in history who had the most expectations weighing on them before they ever stepped onto a collegiate court.
From the first time Pete Maravich picked up a basketball, his coach/father Press was grooming him to become an NBA star.
It’s no coincidence that Press got his first collegiate head coaching job the year that Pete made his college decision—nor that the pair wound up together at LSU.
The same highlight-reel ball-handling and scoring that had opened eyes for the Broughton High star in North Carolina helped him become the all-time leading scorer in Division I history.
Despite an untouchable 44.2 points per game and 24.2 more as a pro, though, Pistol Pete never won a championship at either level, nearly the only blemish on his Hall of Fame career.
As a junior, Tamir Goodman was profiled by Sports Illustrated after verbally committing to Maryland, and his basketball excellence was only part of the story.
The reason Goodman stood out becomes apparent from the impossible-to-live-up-to moniker the story bestowed on him: “the Jewish Jordan.”
The 6’3” Goodman was a versatile and immensely skilled guard, though his on-court resemblance to "His Airness" was still minimal.
Concerns over having to play on Saturdays led him to spurn Maryland for Towson, but even there, he lasted just over one season at the college level. He did go on to a pro career in Israel.
Hype doesn’t always only come from a player’s athletic exploits. Allen Iverson had won Virginia state titles as a point guard and quarterback his junior year, but almost saw his senior year disappear entirely.
A racially polarized fight at a bowling alley ended with Iverson convicted of "maiming by mob" and sentenced to five years in jail. Only a pardon from governor Douglas Wilder got the former Bethel High star set free in time to earn his diploma with help from a tutor.
Iverson’s mother contacted then-Georgetown coach John Thompson III, who knew about the promising guard from his legal troubles rather than from his soon-to-be-iconic crossover.
Thompson gave "AI" a chance with a scholarship on the Hoya roster, and Iverson repaid him with two Big East Defensive Player of the Year awards and one All-America finish in two college seasons (en route to a stellar NBA career).
In an era when college recruiting looked about as sophisticated to modern eyes as a manual typewriter, 6’8” PF Jerry Lucas received over 150 scholarship offers.
Those schools had good reason to target the two-time Ohio Player of the Year. He was a fearsome rebounder as well as a record-setting scorer. Lucas won 76 games in a row (including two state championships) before losing his final high school contest.
The Middletown product opted to head to Ohio State, where he gave the Buckeyes one of the only recruiting classes in collegiate history to feature two future NBA Hall of Famers (along with John Havlicek).
Lucas keyed the only national title run in OSU history in 1960, eventually becoming the only hoopster ever to win championships as a high school, college, NBA and Olympic player.
By the start of his senior season at Indianapolis’ Lawrence North High, Greg Oden was already a two-time state champ and one-time National Player of the Year and all set to add to both totals.
He projected as a No. 1 draft pick so securely, some felt he would’ve earned the top spot even as a junior, but NBA rules meant that Thad Matta got a year of his services at Ohio State instead.
Despite battling a hand injury to start the season, Oden dominated the paint in leading the Buckeyes to the national title game.
Sadly, it’s looking more and more like he’ll be remembered, instead, as “the guy drafted ahead of Kevin Durant” when his injury-ravaged pro career finally ends.
1979 was a very tough year to get noticed as a high school senior in basketball. College recruiters were deciding whether to go after Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins or James Worthy, but no player got more of a recruiting push than 7’3” Virginian Ralph Sampson.
As a senior, the impossibly agile Sampson won his second straight state title for Harrisonburg, though he lost national player of the year honors to Pennsylvania’s Sam Bowie.
That pattern reversed itself in college at Virginia, where he finished growing at 7’4” and took home three consecutive Naismith Awards, but never won a championship (a distinction that also eluded him as an injury-plagued pro).
High school basketball in California is unsurprisingly dominated by L.A. and its environs, with the northern half of the state getting relatively short shrift for both stars and wins.
An unheralded Alameda school named St. Joseph’s turned that story around in 1992 when Jason Kidd led them to the second of back-to-back state titles. Oh, and he also captured the state record for assists in the bargain.
Kidd stayed close to home for college by signing with Cal, which he immediately led to its first Elite Eight since 1960. He hasn’t done too badly as a pro, either, and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer if anyone can convince him to retire.
In the summer of 1994, a year before Kevin Garnett was drafted, Mater Dei sophomore Schea Cotton got profiled in Sports Illustrated.
The magazine was so impressed with the athletic 6’5” forward that it even suggested the possibility of him jumping straight to the NBA out of high school—something no player at that time had done in the previous two decades.
Unfortunately for Cotton, a shoulder injury from an AAU game cost him his senior high school campaign. Subsequently, test-score troubles with the NCAA cost him the chance to play for first-choice UCLA or (after a prep season) NC State.
After a stopover at Long Beach City College, he did get a shot with Alabama, but injuries curtailed his performance, and he never made it to the NBA.
Patrick Ewing’s high school coach at Cambridge Rindge and Latin said of him, “he will be the next Bill Russell, only better offensively.”
Considering that the coach in question was Mike Jarvis (soon to embark on a 400-win college career that’s still going), recruiters around the country listened.
Ewing’s performance—which earned him Street & Smith’s National Player of the Year nod over future Dream Team teammates Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and Charles Barkley—spoke even louder.
Ewing followed up three state championships as a schoolboy with three trips to the Final Four (and one title) at Georgetown. He never added an NBA title to his portfolio, but he did just about everything else in 17 Hall of Fame seasons.
All of the players on this list had earned major national recognition well before the end of their high school careers. Felipe López was already an international sensation by the time he graduated from Rice High School in Harlem.
The 6’5” swingman carried the hopes of the Dominican Republic, a country dreaming of its first NBA superstar, when he arrived at St. John’s as the heir to New York City’s imposing high school basketball legacy.
López proved a terrific scorer as a collegian—trailing only Chris Mullin and Malik Sealy in program history—but he was never more than a bench player as a pro.
Even today, an eighth grader has to be awfully good to get the attention of a superstar college coach.
Bobby Knight not only noticed Damon Bailey at that age, he called him as good a guard as any on Knight’s then-current Hoosier team, a group that included the iconic Steve Alford and was only a year away from a national title.
Bailey’s 3,134 points are still a schoolboy record in hoops-crazy Indiana, so it’s little wonder that he was a rock star well before he donned a Hoosier uniform.
He was a solid collegiate player who played in one Final Four, but never approached the individual stardom he’d achieved at Bedford North Lawrence High.
Bailey’s legend would be more memorable outside of Indiana had the 6’3” shooting guard not washed out before he ever appeared in an NBA game.
On the short list (even now) of high school hoopsters to earn a cover story in Sports Illustrated, Tom McMillen earned his notoriety with gargantuan point totals.
His 3,608 points stood as a Pennsylvania state record for 20 years, and he averaged 47 a game as a Mansfield High senior to heat up the recruiting wars even further.
McMillen wound up a Maryland Terrapin, where his lefty shot helped make him the school’s all-time leader in scoring average (20.5 points a night) and earn him a spot on the 1972 Olympic team.
He went on to a solid 12-year NBA career, though he enjoyed even more success off the court as a Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman.
Three times a Parade All-American, Kenny Anderson made the enormous pressure of New York City’s basketball reputation into an opportunity. He left Queens’ Archbishop Molloy High as the leading scorer in state history, a record that stood for 15 years.
Every bit as revered on the playgrounds as he was in high school gyms, Anderson brought streetball swagger to Georgia Tech.
He led the Yellow Jackets to their first-ever Final Four as a freshman in 1989-90, but when he jumped to the NBA after his sophomore year, he became merely a very good guard on some dreadful Nets (and Hornets and Blazers...) teams.
Rick Mount holds the distinction of being the first high school basketball player ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The sweet-shooting guard was a small-town kid with a streetball mentality, playing pickup games in his hometown of Lebanon against opponents who had come from all over Indiana to measure themselves against him.
State and National Player of the Year as a senior, Mount was set to go to Miami (which had recently graduated the similarly shot-happy Rick Barry) before a local outcry convinced him to stay home at Purdue.
He led the Boilermakers to the national title game as a junior, but like so much of Mount’s college career, his effort that night was eclipsed by the great Lew Alcindor, who led UCLA to the win.
After his record-setting high school and college careers, Mount’s pedestrian ABA career was pretty much an afterthought.
One of a select group of high-schoolers to win Player of the Year honors in two different states, Kevin Garnett collected a state title in South Carolina (Mauldin) as a junior and a city championship in Chicago (Farragut Academy) as a senior.
Garnett had NBA scouts coming to his Farragut games in bunches, in spite of the fact that no player in 20 years had jumped straight from high school to the league.
One of the major reasons for the NBA’s interest was that Garnett looked unlikely to put together the test scores required by the NCAA—indeed, he didn’t get a passing score until he’d already declared for the draft.
Had the 15-time NBA All-Star ended up in the college ranks—as he told Student Sports Magazine—he would have signed with the Maryland Terrapins.
In still-segregated Indiana in the mid-1950s, Oscar Robertson forced white opponents to recognize that a black player could be better than they were—much, much better.
He led Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks High to the first two state championships won by an all-black school, going 62-1 and setting a new record for the biggest crowd to see a high school basketball game in the process.
As his career progressed, Robertson’s success became less about race and more about marveling at one of the most devastating all-around players ever to dribble a ball.
The greatest player in Cincinnati Bearcats history (and Division I’s all-time scoring leader when he graduated in 1960), The Big O is also renowned as the only player to average a triple-double over an NBA season.
Second only to Wilt Chamberlain on the NBA’s single-game scoring charts, Kobe Bryant made his name by surpassing the Pennsylvania legend’s state records as a high-schooler.
As if he hadn’t made enough of an impression with his 30 points per game or his state title at Lower Merion High, he turned even more heads with his senior prom date: pop singer Brandy.
Swimming in National Player of the Year awards just a year after Kevin Garnett’s successful leap from high school to the NBA, Bryant made the none-too-surprising decision to turn pro himself.
Opting not to suit up for Duke—where, according to GoDuke.com, Bryant would have headed had he stayed in school—has rarely been such a successful move for a player’s NBA career.
Wilt Chamberlain was so unstoppable at Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School that Warriors' owner Eddie Gottlieb declared him ready for the NBA as a junior.
He’d already given fans a taste of the marvels to come with a 90-point game (small wonder for a player who was 6’11” as a freshman in an era of 6’6” NBA centers).
Chamberlain rewrote the record books at Kansas, racking up 1,433 points and 877 rebounds in just two collegiate seasons while also starring for the track team. His place on the short list of the greatest centers in basketball history is secure.
There may never have been a basketball superstar less likely to attend college than LeBron James.
James came out of St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron at the crest of the high school-to-NBA wave and would’ve arrived even sooner if the league hadn’t turned down his petition to enter the draft after his junior year of high school.
The only sophomore to be named Ohio Player of the Year, James’ future-star status got his team’s regular-season games broadcast on ESPN. Suffice to say that his hype, his hoops career and his popularity with that network are all still going strong.
Lew Alcindor’s legend as a high school player transcended even the sports media.
As a senior at Power Memorial, he was written up in Time magazine—a story including a quote from no less than Wilt Chamberlain, calling him “the greatest high school player I’ve ever seen.”
If that wasn’t enough to get colleges fighting over the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, his 71 straight wins and three NYC Catholic championships didn’t hurt.
He did plenty more winning as one of the few players in the running for both best college career and best pro career ever, totaling nine championships between UCLA and the NBA.